What Is X-Ray Astronomy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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X-ray astronomy is a field of astronomy that is focused on the detection and evaluation of X-ray sources in the universe. Black holes, neutron stars and a variety of other phenomena emit electromagnetic radiation, including X-rays, and the study of this radiation can provide important information about the universe. X-ray astronomers work with satellites, rockets and balloons to make observations. They might work for private organizations, government agencies or educational institutions.

One challenge with X-ray astronomy is that X-rays cannot penetrate the Earth's atmosphere, which is a good thing for residents of the Earth but a bad thing for scientists who are interested in making observations. The origins of X-ray astronomy were dependent on developing methods to get observing tools such as telescopes outside the atmosphere to reliably pick up X-rays and other electromagnetic radiation. Missions during the 1960s were among the first to make observations through the use of X-rays.

Researchers can trace X-ray emissions back to their source, relying on information about how electromagnetic radiation works. Their work also can be supplemented by observations of radiation at other frequencies, including along the visible spectrum. Some striking X-ray images of objects such as the moon, which is readily visible to the naked eye, provide important information about how X-rays behave in space and what kinds of radiation are emitted by various objects.


In X-ray astronomy, some researchers focus on scanning the sky for new detections. They use highly sensitive equipment to locate new sites of interest by searching for radiation that other researchers have not been able to find. The universe is extremely large, and it is very easy to miss sources of radiation, sometimes including major ones. Researchers can use tools such as programming routines to sift through their data and identify targets of interest.

When researchers find a target that looks like it might yield data, they can train observing instruments on it and collect more information. Although X-ray astronomy focuses on X-rays, the instruments might collect data on other kinds of radiation at the same time. Researchers can identify celestial bodies such as stars as well as other objects and events of interest. Their work contributes to an understanding of the formative processes behind the universe as well as the ongoing collection of data to map the depths of space.

People who have an interest in X-ray astronomy can attend college or a university to get training in this field. Many researchers have advanced degrees. Ongoing research and publication credits typically are necessary to keep up with other researchers.


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